Random Stories From My Life
The Day I Met My Idol: Star Wars Sound Designer Ben Burtt
And a day which set in motion something unexpected …
They say never to meet your idols … you may not like what you find.
But I’ve met mine — and they’ve been amazingly cool people.
Nowadays, when a new Star Wars movie is released, it’s fun. But back during the original Trilogy, it was a HUGE event. Just imagine having to wait three long years between films.
Springtime brings the second, long-awaited installment in the blockbuster Star Wars saga — The Empire Strikes Back. And a few months later, we get the added gift of a TV special, showing the making of the special effects and the film.
And for the first time, we see how some of the other-worldly sounds for this fantasy sci-fi adventure were created, and the man who created them:
The segment is only a couple of minutes, but the impression it makes on me lasts for years … “You mean there’s a job where you can do that?”
Following the success of Star Wars, George Lucas began funneling some of the millions he’d made into a subsidiary called The Droid Works. Its mission is to use computers to modernize the making of feature films: an extremely-tedious, manual process that has changed surprisingly little since the dawn of cinema, early in the twentieth century.
Flash forward, 1986:
In 1986, I’m on the engineering staff at CBS television in Boston, with sound mixing as a specialty. I’ve also been designing and constructing an important new facility expansion: the station’s very first stereo audio control room.
And so, by springtime, I’m planning a well-deserved week-long vacation — traveling to California, and driving down the coast, starting in San Francisco.
And since I’ll be in the Bay Area, I schedule a visit to The Droid Works’ headquarters in San Rafael.
There, I’ve asked to see a demo of the EditDroid and the SoundDroid — Lucasfilm’s revolutionary new computer workstations which edit picture and sound digitally … a radical improvement to the state of the art.
And while there, I’m also hoping to say hi to my long-time idol, Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt. He’s a sonic genius who practically reinvented the cinema soundtrack as we know it today.
About a week before flying to California, I finally get up the nerve to call Burtt at Lucasfilm’s post-production company, Sprocket Systems:
“Sprockets, may I help you?”
Me, crossing my fingers, and being as low-key and matter-of-fact as I possibly can:
“Ben Burtt, please.”
Next, the sound of an extension ringing …
(Oh? Have I actually managed to avoid the receptionist asking who I am or why I’m calling? Yes!)
“Hi, Ben — my name is Ron. I’m a sound engineer with CBS television in Boston. I’m actually going to be in town early next week, and was hoping to drop by and say hi to you in person, if you might be around.”
“You know, I actually get a couple of calls like this a week — and unfortunately, George doesn’t like to have visitors here unless they’re on some kind of official business. So I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. I’m sure you can understand.”
Me, trying to hide my disappointment:
“Oh, of course, I understand. That’s too bad, ’cause I’ll be there getting a demo of the EditDroid and SoundDroid on Monday …”
“Oh, no problem, then! My office is right down the hall. Why don’t you stop by when you’re done with the demo?”
Me, trying to hide my exhilaration:
“Great! I’ll come by afterwards, late Monday morning.”
Monday, San Francisco
I rent a car, drive over the Golden Gate bridge to Marin County, and show up at The Droid Works — in a nondescript building on Kerner Boulevard, in San Rafael.
I’m really mostly interested in the SoundDroid — the first digital audio workstation for film, ever. In order to see that, though, I need to sit through an hour-long demo of the EditDroid — the first digital picture workstation for film, ever. Though that doesn’t interest me as much.
I’m greeted by a Droid Works marketing guy named Mike. And today’s demo turns out to be for an audience of only two visitors. There’s me (just a TV guy from Boston, with a healthy dose of impostor syndrome), and another guy who actually seems legit, the head of a cinema organization in France.
And the people demoing the systems are actually the engineers building them. So, there promises to be a minimum of hype. Even better.
We’re off to one room, and start with the EditDroid. And loaded up to demonstrate this revolutionary approach to picture editing is raw production footage from Return of the Jedi. Oh? This makes it a little more interesting.
Our demo artist quickly cuts together a finished scene of Luke and Yoda from the raw footage — using no videotape, no film, no splicing, none of that. Just some clicks of the mouse, and twists of a computerized knob. Hm, pretty slick. And absolutely bleeding-edge stuff, in 1986:
After an hour, and our hosts patiently answering a lot of questions … we adjourn to a second room, and watch the SoundDroid in action. With it, another engineer shows us how to edit and mix audio virtually — using a GUI display, a mouse, and actual volume faders and knobs built into the computer. Also unheard of, in 1986:
The sound demo uses raw footage of a Twilight Zone episode called Nightcrawlers, directed by William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist). The segment is quite memorable — and so is the demo.
We two visitors know we’re seeing the future of filmmaking, right before our eyes.
And after the sound demo, guess who comes by to show us around the facility? It’s Ben Burtt!
He’s a super-nice guy, and you’d never guess what a blockbuster talent he is, based on his low-key demeanor.
He shows us his editing room … his office … Sprockets’ tape library (with hundreds of Nagra reel-to-reel location tape recordings) … the transfer room (where those recordings are copied over for editing on film) … and then his studio, where he creates his unique, never-before-heard sounds.
The studio is professional, but surprisingly modest: Burtt’s award-winning work isn’t the product of synthesizers or fancy electronic gear, per se … but rather, his imagination in finding, recording and combining a vast array of obscure sounds in very novel ways.
Finally, Burtt shows us Sprockets’ “dubbing stage” (or “re-recording theatre”) — a very plush movie theatre, where the centerpiece isn’t the movie screen, but a large audio mixing console, staffed by several sound-mixing personnel. This is where all the individual elements of a film’s soundtrack — hundreds of snippets of dialog, music, and sound effects — are blended into a finished, cohesive whole.
(The film being mixed here today is Disney theme parks’ forthcoming 3D film, Captain Eo — featuring Michael Jackson, and directed by Francis Coppola. At the moment we peek in, they’re busy refining a horn “toot” sound for one of the film’s puppet characters.)
And with all that, it’s a little after Noon — and our tour of Lucasfilm’s state-of-the-art sound facility is complete. Our business concluded, we’re thanking our hosts, and exchanging business cards.
And for me, the morning was everything I could have hoped for.
The others drift off, and Ben sees me out to the lobby. And as I start to say goodbye, he’s looking around, a bit puzzled … then leans over to the receptionist:
Ben: “Where did everybody go?”
Receptionist: “I think they already took off for lunch.”
And Ben pauses … then looks at me … then says:
Ben: “Well, you want to go grab a sub?”
WTF?!? I’m elated — but try to be cool about it.
And with that, we head out, and down Kerner Boulevard, to a stand selling submarine sandwiches. I can’t believe my luck. It’s a dream come true. The two of us chat amiably, then head back with our lunches to a small patio area outside the back of the building.
And so now — completely unexpected — I get his total attention for a full hour.
Mind you: this is the guy who created the sounds of R2D2, Chewbacca, Jawas and Cantina creatures … brought light sabers and tie fighters and other exotic machinery to life so we could feel them … made believable the exotic settings that thrilled us in the Indiana Jones movies … created the voice of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial … and more.
As we dig into lunch, he explains:
He regards himself a bit like a magician … conjuring other-worldly auditory illusions for the film’s audience. And he hasn’t talked much about how he works, since if the audience becomes more aware of that, it makes it a bit harder to pull off his illusions.
But since it’s just me here, he says, he’s happy to tell me anything I want.
I wish I’d known! I could have prepared better in advance. I would have rewatched the Star Wars trilogy right before the trip. Oh, well. I do the best I can, trying to improvise meaningful questions worthy of his time.
And with that, I ask him about his process for creating such novel and magical sounds.
So instead of focusing on those better-known stories, I’ll recount a few other anecdotes he shared that day.
(It’s been 35 years now, so I think it’s time. :)
➤ As a teenager, Burtt was fascinated by movie sound. (This was in the 1950s and 60s — decades before home video.)
He’d bring a tape recorder to drive-in movies … record the soundtrack off the drive-in speaker(!) … and study the soundtracks at home, sans picture.
After a while, he got so good at identifying sounds, he could tell which movie studio’s film it was, based solely on which versions of sound effects they used.
➤ He’s always on the lookout for unusual sounds, and usually has a tape recorder standing by to capture them.
… He likes to do gardening at home.
And one day, he’s dragging the garden hose along the ground, and because of the water in the hose, and being dragged a certain way, it makes an unusual sound. So he records it. (And later, he manipulates and combines it with other sounds to produce something new.)
… Or at Cape Canaveral, he’s waiting to record a Space Shuttle launch for the IMAX film The Dream Is Alive … and there are repeated delays in the countdown.
So he has some extra hours on his hands.
After he records all the unique squeaking sounds of the press stands … he heads into the Visitor’s Center, where there are soda and vending machines. And he records the sounds of different concessions being dispensed.
(“It makes a certain sound when M&Ms come out; a bag of potato chips makes a different sound, etc. …”).
➤ The footage of him creating the Star Wars “blaster” sounds in the making-of TV special?
He recreated the scene, especially for the documentary crew, at the transmitting tower of an AM radio station on the edge of the Mojave desert, using the very guy wire he’d originally used for Star Wars (since he liked that particular sound).
➤ His equipment for Star Wars was extremely low-tech:
He did the sound post-production in George Lucas’s basement, using just a couple of tape recorders (including one borrowed from producer Gary Kurtz), connecting them together using RCA patchcords.
➤ For Star Wars’ final battle scene at the Death Star, he ran the pilot’s voices through a short-wave radio transmitter/receiver.
By deliberately mistuning the radio (to get a “sideband” sound), he gave the dialog — which had been recorded pristinely in the studio — the authentic sound of real radio transmissions.
➤ Sounds like explosions and crashes, when recorded properly (without distortion) tend to sound too clean — and so don’t have the visceral impact the audience is used to.
So he’ll take those more pristine recordings, and transfer them to a 16mm optical film soundtrack, highly over-modulated, and recombine that with the original recording.
That gives it the distorted quality audiences expect.
➤ Walking around with a tape recorder makes one appear as a kind of “eccentric.”
… Sometimes people ask what he’s doing, and when he tells them — recording sounds for films — that’s usually enough.
… Once, he was recording outside a building which turned out to be a government installation; they confiscated his tapes — but he eventually got them back.
… Airports sometimes think he’s from the EPA, gathering evidence on noise levels.
➤ He doesn’t consider himself an audiophile, per se, and doesn’t have any special stereo system at home.
[In 1986,] he hasn’t bought a CD player yet, though likes the idea — and “Johnny” Williams is trying to convince him to get one.
➤ And finally, some advice for aspiring sound designers?
Try doing as he did: listen to movie soundtracks — with the picture turned off. Without the visual distraction, it’s great practical training for learning what goes into making of the soundtrack itself.
And as our lunch hour winds down, Ben says he needs to head back inside “to work on the energy bolts for Howard the Duck.”
Hoping for one last coup in this extraordinary day, I ask if I might go back with him to his studio & watch him work for a bit.
Ben is diplomatic (and self-deprecating):
“Well, mostly you’d just see someone sitting there, frustrated and tearing his hair out … so it’s probably better if we don’t.”
And with that parting cue, I thank him. For me, it’s been one of the best days of my (professional) life.
That meeting fuels me for years to come.
Back in Boston, I take Ben’s advice, and rent classic sci-fi films (on VHS), then record the soundtracks onto audio cassette.
He’s right — listening to the soundtracks in isolation is a great education. And steadily, inspired by his example, I become even more confident and creative in my own audio work.
A few years later, it seems that EditDroid demo had made an impression on me after all: I teach myself picture editing, and add a new phase to my career.
Mike, formerly of The Droid Works, turns out to be more than just a marketing guy. He writes the first-ever textbook on Nonlinear film & video editing — and it’s adopted by colleges and universities across the country.
I discover the book during a trip to L.A., and devour it, cover-to-cover.
I move to Los Angeles, and become a video editor, full-time.
In Los Angeles, I run into Mike by chance at an industry event at the Beverly Hilton hotel. We recognize each other … and end up collaborating on the third edition of his book.
We collaborate yet again, this time on an expanded fourth edition of his book.
It becomes the definitive history of that transformational era at Lucasfilm.